Before 2012 slips away it's worth remembering that this is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Thomas Kuhn's hugely influential book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which was itself revolutionary, and has sold more than a million copies worldwide. Almost every time you hear the word 'paradigm', Kuhn's book is in the background.
Kuhn made it clear that science is not simply devoted to the rational pursuit of truth, but is subject to human foibles, ambitions, emotions, and peer-group pressures. A paradigm is a theory of reality, a model of the way in which research can be done, and a consensus within a professional group. At any given time anomalies that do not fit into the paradigm are rejected or ignored, and 'normal science' goes on within the agreed framework. But at times of scientific revolution, 'one conceptual world view is replaced by another'; the framework itself is enlarged to include anomalies that were previously unexplained. Some well-known examples of major paradigm shifts are the Copernican revolution in astronomy, the Darwinian theory of evolution, and the relativity and quantum revolutions in twentieth century physics.
Are further paradigm shifts likely? If science is to develop further, they are inevitable. And as old certainties break down all around us in the economic, financial and political worlds, in science the long-established materialist paradigm is in crisis.
In physics, there has been a major shift away from the observable towards the virtual. Since the beginning of this century, matter and energy as we know them have been demoted to 4 percent of the universe. The rest consists of hypothetical dark matter and dark energy. The nature of 96 percent of physical reality is literally obscure. Meanwhile, the observable physical realm is floating on a vast ocean of energy called the zero-point energy field or the quantum vacuum field, from which virtual particles emerge and disappear, mediating all electromagnetic forces. Your eyes are reading these lines through seething virtual photons as your retinas absorb light, and as nerve impulses move up the optic nerve and patterns of electrical activity arise in your brain, all mediated by corresponding patterns of activity within the vacuum field within and around you.
Even the mass of an obviously physical object like a rock arises from virtual particles in hypothetical fields. In the Standard Model of particle physics, all mass is ultimately explained in terms of the invisible Higgs field, which has a constant strength everywhere. The Higgs boson is supposed to create a cloud of virtual particles in the Higgs field around it, and these virtual particles interact with other quantum particles, giving them mass.
Contemporary theoretical physics is dominated by superstring and M theories, with 10 and 11 dimensions respectively. These theories are untested and currently untestable. Meanwhile, many cosmologists have adopted the multiverse theory, which asserts that there are trillions of universes besides our own. These are interesting speculations, but they are not old-paradigm materialist science. Reality has dissolved into the physics of the virtual.
In consciousness studies, materialism is being challenged by a new version of animism or 'panpsychism', according to which all self-organizing material systems, like electrons, have a mental as well as a physical aspect. In his recent book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, the atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that a shift to panpsychism is necessary for any viable philosophy of nature that does not need to invoke God.
Meanwhile, in biology, despite the confident claim in the late twentieth century that genes and molecular biology would soon explain the nature of life, no one yet knows how plants and animals develop from fertilized eggs. And following the technical triumph of the Human Genome Project, first announced by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in June 2000, there were big surprises. There are far fewer human genes than anticipated, a mere 23,000 instead of 100,000. Sea urchins have about 26,000 and rice plants 38,000. Attempts to predict characteristics such as height have shown that genes account for only about 5 percent of the variation from person to person, instead of the 80 percent expected. Unbounded confidence has given way to the 'missing heritability problem'. Investors in genomics and biotechnology have lost many billions of dollars. A recent report by the Harvard Business School on the biotechnology industry revealed that "only a tiny fraction of companies had ever made a profit" and showed how promises of breakthroughs have failed over and over again.
Materialist science seemed simple and straightforward. But old-style material reality has now dissolved into multi-dimensional virtual physics; increasing numbers of philosophers and neuroscientists are moving towards panpsychism; and biologists are having to think about 'systems' and 'emergent properties' that cannot be reduced to the molecular level.
Kuhn's insights, and the subsequent developments in science studies, are not merely of historical relevance, looking at revolutions in the past. Hopefully we can learn from them today. We are in the midst of a new revolution.